No limos, free dresses or after-parties: How will Hollywood survive?

Every January, amid a sea of deflated New Year balloons, Hollywood's awards season kicks into gear. There are tuxedos to press, limousines to book, and after-parties to gate-crash. If you're not shoulder to shoulder with the who-used-to-be-who and the what's left of showbusiness, then where the bloody hell are you?

In 2020, all of that slid off the rails. There were either cancellations or delays for most major events, and all of the key film industry awards nights, historically a circus of red carpets, designer dresses and inane sideline reportage, went "virtual". No red carpets, no free dresses, no audiences and, in most cases, acceptance speeches either pre-taped or Zoomed from home.

Bong Joon-ho at the 2020 Oscars … the last major awards ceremony held in a live, in-person setting.Credit:AP

Awards season traditionally runs from November to February, and begins with the Gotham Awards in New York and a raft of industry, critic and audience voted events on both American coasts, such as the National Board of Review awards, New York Film Critics Circle awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards, the National Society of Film Critics awards and the People's Choice awards.

In January it shifts wholly to Los Angeles, starting with the Golden Globes, and followed by the peer-voted awards nights of the Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild, Producers Guild and Directors Guild, and it ends in February with the Independent Spirit Awards and, finally, the Academy Awards.

But as the 2021 season gets underway, the calendar has now stretched from three months to five, with the Oscars re-scheduled for April. The music industry's Grammy awards, scheduled for January 31, have been shifted to March 14. And even parallel events, such as the Sundance Film Festival's planned Drive-In season, already a concession to the COVID pandemic, has now been abandoned.

It all seems to point to a death knell for Hollywood, or at least its propensity for self-congratulation. And while the appetite for cinematic storytelling has not abated, in an era of ever-larger television screens and VR headsets which can replicate large-screen experiences within enclosed environments, the movie exhibition business is certainly at a crossroads.

Phoning it in … Dan Harmon uses a block of wood as an imaginary Emmy during his acceptance speech in 2020.Credit:Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

As it stands, the box office indicators are mixed. Tenet, directed by Christopher Nolan, was a monumental gamble on whether cinema audiences would return to shared social spaces during a pandemic and it came up short. With a US$200 million budget and a marketing spend roughly equal to that, Tenet made only US$363 million. That makes it an on-paper loss.

Wonder Woman 1984 was the year's other major commercial film release, with a US$200 million budget and, in keeping with Hollywood accounting, a marketing spend of roughly the same, and it has made only US$118 million at the box office.

The x-factor in the accounting for Wonder Woman 1984 is that its studio, Warner Bros, simultaneously released it on its streaming platform HBO Max where it has had a positive impact on subscriptions. Exactly how positive is unclear; studios only periodically release streaming subscription and revenue data. Whatever it was, it was good enough to win approval for a third Wonder Woman film.

The bigger question for awards season may very well be existential. Whether awards shows survive the 2020 pandemic is one question, but whether they can survive at all, in the longer term, is also uncertain.

Wonder Woman 1984 lassoed only US$118 million at the box office but it was enough to win her a third film.Credit:Warner Bros

A key factor is overpopulation of the species. In addition to the dozen or so awards nights which make up the film industry's awards season, there are television's Emmys, music's Grammys, which both have dozens of spin-offs, from the Engineering Emmys, and the Daytime Emmys, to the Latin Grammys. On top of that there are Broadway's Tonys, the Billboard Music awards, the MTV awards, the BET awards and on the list goes.

Statistically eyeball numbers are also against them. The television ratings tell a long-term story of decline, and the headlines for Emmy, Grammy and Oscar telecasts alike now come with phrases like "eight year ratings low". They are victim of audience and channel fragmentation, true, but they have also suffered at their own hand, either from divergence from the commercial mainstream (how many Oscar-nominated films did you really see?) or simply because they produce below-par telecasts.

On that last point, ever-less-entertaining telecasts have slowly hammered one nail after another into the genre's coffin, despite the very healthy sport of offering up the host for critical savagery in the following day's papers and, in the digital age, social media platforms in real time. As conversational beheadings go, they're often more entertaining than the awards nights themselves.

The Golden Globes, with the smallest voting pool and arguably the least critical heft of the major awards ceremonies, seemed to acknowledge that by returning comedian Ricky Gervais as host year after year, only to see him eviscerate the stars, the industry and indeed the awards themselves.

“No one cares about movies anymore.” Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes.Credit:AP

"That first time I did it, [I thought], do I pander to the 200 privileged egos in the room or do I try and entertain a global audience of 200 million people sitting at home who aren't winning awards?" Gervais told The Hollywood Reporter last year. "Well, no contest. I try and make it a spectator sport. I try and play the outsider."

In his opening salvo at last year's Globes, Gervais started with his hosts. "Lucky for me, the Hollywood Foreign Press can barely speak English and they've no idea what Twitter is," he said. "[So] let's have a laugh at your expense. Remember, they're just jokes."

"Tonight isn't just about the people in front of the camera, in this room are some of the most important TV and film executives in the world, people from every background," he continued. "They all have one thing in common: they're all terrified of Ronan Farrow," he finished, referring to the journalist who had led a number of key #MeToo investigations. "He's coming for ya."

"No one cares about movies anymore," Gervais finished, almost presciently given the COVID-19 pandemic had not landed yet and cinemas had not yet begun their long dark winter. "No one goes to cinema, no one really watches network TV. Everyone is watching Netflix. This show should just be me coming out, going, well done Netflix, you win everything, good night. But no, we got to drag it out for three hours."

The Oscars will be held in 2021, but don’t expect them to roll out the red carpet.Credit:Robert Galbraith/Reuters


78th Golden Globe awards: usually early January, re-scheduled to February 28
27th Screen Actors Guild awards: usually mid-January, re-scheduled to March 14
63rd annual Grammy awards: usually late January, re-scheduled to March 14
73rd Writers Guild awards: usually mid-January, re-scheduled to March 21
32nd Producers Guild awards: usually late January, re-scheduled to March 24
73rd Directors Guild awards: usually late January, re-scheduled to April 10
74th BAFTA Film awards: usually early February, re-scheduled to April 11
36th Independent Spirit awards: usually mid-February, re-scheduled to April 24
93rd Academy Awards: usually mid-February, re-scheduled to April 25

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman, one of several Oscar contenders for 2021.Credit:Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features via AP


You could be forgiven for thinking that there weren't enough films released in the last year to actually fill an Oscar ballot. While it was certainly a tough year for cinemas, a decision by the Academy to allow streaming titles to be eligible for the best picture category without having a theatrical release for the first time ever, has populated a robust list of potential Oscar nominees.

Best Picture: News of the World (Universal), Promising Young Woman (Focus), Nomadland (Searchlight), Mank (Netflix), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix), One Night in Miami (Amazon Studios), Da 5 Bloods (Netflix), Judas and the Black Messiah (Warner Bros).

Best Director: Chloé Zhao for Nomadland, David Fincher for Mank, Florian Zeller for The Father, Aaron Sorkin for The Trial of the Chicago 7, Lee Isaac Chung for Minari, Spike Lee for Da 5 Bloods, Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman, Christopher Nolan for Tenet.

Best Actor: Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Anthony Hopkins for The Father, Delroy Lindo for Da 5 Bloods, Gary Oldman for Mank, Colin Firth for Supernova, George Clooney for The Midnight Sky, Tom Hanks for News of the World.

Best Actress: Frances McDormand for Nomadland, Viola Davis for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Vanessa Kirby for Pieces of a Woman, Meryl Streep for The Prom, Michelle Pfeiffer for French Exit, Sophia Loren for The Life Ahead, Zendaya for Malcolm & Marie, Andra Day for The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

The nominees for the 2021 Oscars will be announced on March 15.

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